Wednesday 23 December 2015

Did they really have platform soles in the 1940s? And other Recency Illusions by Leslie Wilson

French fashion, 1941
My lovely editor for Saving Rafael at one stage asked me: 'Did they have platform soles in the Forties? Well, yes, they did, and here's a picture of them. In fact, I can remember my mother groaning: 'Oh, not again!' when they came in thirty years later.

This is a nice example of what I saw described in the New Scientist as 'the Recency Illusion,. ie, the idea that certain innovations, technology, slang, fashion, language etc are far more recent than they in fact are. I find myself caught up in it myself, quite often. For example,would you believe that in 1880s Hong Kong, there was a telephone installed at Government House? There was, though (I was startled to learn, when writing The Mountain of Immoderate Desires), and it communicated with the second Government House on the Peak, demolished later by a typhoon, and, when we were in Hong Kong, nothing but a cement platform overgrown by morning glories.

I remember the late and lovely PD James falling prey to it when she told an interviewer that thank heavens, when she was a child, the word 'kid' was only applied to baby goats. However, I have to respectfully contradict her here: E. Nesbit uses the word 'kids' (See: 'The Wouldbegoods' (published 1901, nine years before PD James was born), and also I have an obscure novel called 'The Quaker Bonnet', published in 1913, where a maidservant describes the heroine as 'the weirdest kid that ever I had to do with.' Once again, I suspect that if I put that in a book set at that period, several people would object to my use of 'modern' language.

A copy-editor objected to my use of the word 'cool' in Last Train from Kummersdorf, saying that the word in its current meaning dated from the 1990s. It was, of course, used in my youth, quite a bit before the 1990s, but I had also (being that kind of author) double-checked that the word was used in the sense I was using it in the 40s, using a Louis Armstrong lyric for validation. I suppose it's not surprising that a younger person should find it hard to believe their 'own' slang has such a long white beard on.

One of the oddest ideas I have often encountered is that people didn't use contractions in speech in the past. I mean, don't, shan't, she's, etc. A student on a creative writing course I tutored told me in all seriousness that in the past (in this case the early 20th century) people never used these forms, even in speech. I referred him to Jane Austen, but he was still sceptical. But here is Squire Bramble, in Smollett's Humphrey Clinker, first published in 1771. 'I an't married to Tabby, thank Heaven' and: 'Not that she's a fool.' Or: 'I dare say you won't wonder at the progress the writer had made in the heart of a simple girl.' People also abbreviated names, such as Tom, Tab, etc.You, gentle readers, all know this, but this person didn't, and doubtless he's not alone.
The balloon races

Also, I was reading about the balloon races from the Vincennes site of the 1900 Paris Exhibition in a book I picked up in Paris once, and came across the expression 'le recordman.' It being self-explanatory, I had no need for any translation, but this was a 1900 account. If I were to write a novel about the period and put that very modern-sounding expression in, I'd bet a huge amount of people would regard it as an anachronism (and pick me up on it.)

Then there was the person who wrote to me and complained that I had a character called Marlene in between-the-wars Weimar Germany (in my first, not very wonderful novel). This lady seemed to have a kind of proprietorial passion for Marlene Dietrich, and she had been led astray by the story (presumably related by the lovely Marlene to her daughter and recorded in said daughter's biography of her mother) that Dietrich had run Maria Magdalene together to invent the name of Marlene. In fact there was a character called Marlene in one of my mother's German children's books, first published in 1913, which was why I chose the name. Dietrich was admittedly twelve in 1913, but it's unlikely that she had both invented the name for the first time and got it into universal currency by that time. In fact German names are often telescoped like this 'Annelie' for 'Anne Liese' for example, or 'Annegret' for 'Anna Margarethe'.

Another lady recently wrote to the Guardian style editor objecting to the use of the word 'freighted'. It was not a verb, she said, and she couldn't find it in her Oxford dictionary. However, the Guardian found it, as an archaic usage, in their Collins dictionary (it’s in my Chambers, too). I am quite certain I have read 'freighted' in some poem or book, but the source escapes my mind. Anyone know? Incidentally, 'miffed' was a word I only knew through the pages of Georgette Heyer, till it returned to common usage in the latter part of the 20th century.

Something that fascinated me was finding, in the diaries of Thomas Creevey, a noted Regency Whig, 11th May: 'A telegraphic dispatch announces that Lord Whitworth (Ambassador to France) has left Paris.' This was the ending of the Peace of Amiens, and the telegraphic message was in fact sent by semaphore, the real-life source of Terry Pratchett's Clacks Towers (or is it Clax?). However, when, in 'Our Mutual Friend', (1865), telegrams are sent by Mr Veneering's supporters, when he's purchasing his seat in Parliament, they really were sending electrical telegrams as I remember them before the invention of the fax, the email, and the SMS text. The first commercial telegraphy service in Britain, according to Wikipedia, was installed on the Great Western Railway system, between Paddington and West Drayton in 1838.

Diagram of a Prussian semaphore tower.

Any other contributions to this litany of things more ancient than we think they are?



Anonymous said...

I was struck by Susan Coolidge's Clover (1888) having a young man around to dinner when she was home alone, having it all be perfectly respectable AND the young man offering to help with the dishes.

Mike Hall said...

A quick search of google books gives "freighted" in a 1796 Commons journal and gives an 1850 very short book - maybe a poem? - entitled "The Barque that is Freighted with Happiness" by Jane Kennedy, so definitely not a modern usage.

Leslie Wilson said...

I guess in the mountains maybe things were more informal. The rules of chaperonage were really complicated though!

Katherine Langrish said...

'Freighted' appears as a verb in Samuel JOhnson's Dictionary, 1756

Sally Zigmond said...

When I was writing my Victorian novel, one of my characters eyes a passing young and fashionably dressed rich young man and thinks he is "swell". My editor vetoed it for being both American and far too modern even though I'd researched the word thoroughly and yes, it was used in the 19th century in the UK in that context. As he said, quite rightly, it would be perceived that way by today's readers.

Leslie Wilson said...

'A howling swell,' yes. But do you think the recency illusion should be pandered to, Sally? I certainly didn't think it'd be a good idea to take all the 'cool' out of Kummersdorf, and it doesn't seem to have been a problem. I think that readers' concepts should be expanded, rather than shrink our work to fit what editors think the readership knows.
I must say, I do think of it as rather a noun than an adjective in the past, so that;s interesting. I have been told that a lot of archaic English has survived in America, where it hasn't in England - and also in Northern Ireland, I have perceived.

Sue Bursztynski said...

Delightful post, Leslie! And it's so much easier, now, to find things by going on line, rather than having to rummage through your books.

I remember seeing boys at my current school wearing the then fashionable bowl-type haircuts and wondering if they'd keep using them if they had a look at a painting of Henry V.

I have seen the word "kid" used by Agatha Christie in her early novels, though it's usually a reference to a young woman rather than a child. An interesting suggestion that American language has a lot of archaic words in it. It wouldn't surprise me at all.

Leslie Wilson said...

In the 60s, my then teenage brother wrote a poem called 'A Defence'. I can still remember the opening lines.
'Henry the Fifth had a Beatle cut,
How about that for a start?
We take our model from the good old days
When they tonned it up in a cart.'
I wonder if he remembers it?

Susan Price said...

I certainly don't think that the 'recency' fallacy should be pandered to, Leslie. If you have evidence that a term was used at the period you're writing about, that should be enough.

Coming from the Black Country, I'm tired of defending the use of 'kid' against accusations of being a modern Americanism. In the Black Country, it has always been used to mean a child or young man, alongside 'wench' for a young woman, which no one argues is 'recent.' 'Our Kid' is your brother, and 'Our Wench' is your sister.

My grandparents and great-grandparents talked about their kids - and they certainly weren't in the habit of using Americanisms to sound cool (to use another non-recent term.)

Becca McCallum said...

'Fall' was used in Britain until about the 18th century, when people started to use 'autumn' instead. And the 'American' way of putting the date was also common in Britain until the 18th century.

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